A little taste of La Habana


Well, last week I went somewhere I had never really imagined myself going: CUBA! I had a personal day at work to burn, and I mean, when you have an extra day off from work, what better way to spend it than by going to Cuba? So, that is what my friends and I did!

We were only there from Friday to Tuesday, but I feel like we were able to do so much in such a short time! In the interest of saving myself from spending hours on this post and also in the interest of saving you hours reading it, I will just wrap things up in a chronological list of bullet points (so I don’t have to fret about paragraph structure), with a few intermittent stories/explanations when it feels appropriate. I won’t bother with Friday since all we did Friday was fly to La Habana (although I was pretty fascinated by the fact that the whole airport smelled like smoke, which immediately brought me back to the 80s).

Before I get into the details of each day, though, I need to just give a shout-out to La Madrina (madrina is Spanish for godmother), who was our airbnb host (here’s her listing in case you are headed to La Habana Vieja any time soon). La Madrina was an amazing host who opened her home to us and really made this trip one to remember. Among other things, she arranged airport transportation for us, made us delicious breakfast every day, kept the fridge fully stocked with cold water, gave us a walking tour of La Habana Vieja so we could see all the cool local parts of town, arranged a private salsa class for us, came out dancing with us, and just generally made every day an adventure. So as you read about each day’s adventures, know that half of them wouldn’t have been possible without La Madrina!

Day 1 – Saturday

  • Breakfast at La Madrina’s (eggs, toast, fruit, natilla [completely different from Costa Rican Natilla], fresh juice).
  • Walked to the bank to exchange money.
    • They have two currencies in Cuba: one for the locals and one for tourists. Obviously we got tourist money. I actually find it pretty interesting and quite clever on behalf of Cuba. When the locals pay with local currency, they also pay local prices. That means that the prices can get driven up for tourists, but the locals can still afford to live.
    • In Cuba, people don’t really line up (or queue up, if you’re reading this from England) the way I am used to. Basically, instead of standing single file so everyone knows what order the line goes in, you just ask around until you learn who the last person on “line” is. Once you find (and memorize) that person, you establish yourself as the new last person. Then you can putz around wherever you want until it’s your turn. Eventually someone finds and memorizes you, and you are no longer the last.
    • There was a woman behind us who was so friendly and hilarious. She was getting frustrated about the wait, but she got over it real fast once she saw the bank guard and decided to ask him out for a drink!
  • Spent the morning walking around getting to know the city. It was HOT. Like, really HOT.
  • Stopped at a hotel for lunch in the air conditioning.
  • Walked outside with no real plan and were approached by a guy selling tours in his classic (1948) Ford. We figured we were going to do a classic car ride at some point anyway, so we may as well do it then.
    • Our driver Jorge drove us around the for an hour, with a few stops. We saw Plaza de la Revolución, which is a very large parking lot where Fidel Castro addressed many Cubans during the Revolution (hence the name, I suppose).
    • We also drove down the Malecón, which is basically a very famous boardwalk minus the boards. There aren’t many people along the Malecón during the day due to the blistering sun, but we did head down there and caught the cool breeze at night.
    • We actually got pulled over during our tour, which was interesting because the guy who pulled us over wasn’t in a police car or anything; he just kinda waved Jorge down from the side of the road. Sadly, Jorge got a ticket for having his elbow resting on the side of his door, rather than safely tucked inside while his hands were on 10 and 2.
  • Back to La Madrina’s for the best siesta ever.
  • Dinner at Kilometro Cero. Had delicious pescado (fish) with asparagus and parmesan sauce. Delish!
  • Walked to the aforementioned Malecón to do some people watching and digest our tasty meal.

 Day 2 – Sunday

  • Breakfast at La Madrina’s
  • Walked with La Madrina to Buena Vista Social Club to buy tickets for that night’s show.
  • La Madrina offered to let us walk with her as she picked up some groceries for the week, and we had an awesome time meandering the streets of La Habana Vieja learning about Cuba, its people, and its culture.
  • Met La Madrina’s neighbors and played dominoes with them! Dominoes is super popular in Cuba!
  • Brian and Angela went out exploring more, but I took a much-needed siesta in preparation for our private salsa lesson!
  • Went back downstairs to La Madrina’s neighbors’ living room, where we had our salsa class (La Madrina’s daughter-in-law is an instructor).
    • Cuban salsa is definitely faster than Tico salsa.
    • Learning Tico salsa was really helpful to have a foundation for Cuban salsa.
    • Dancing in a stranger’s living room while even more strangers come in and out is not as weird as you’d think it might be.
    • But yes, it was HOT.
  • Headed out to dinner at Chanchullero, which was a little pub with delicious food.
    • I had lamb with onions, and it came with a little salad and some mashed potatoes. It was my favorite meal from Cuba.
    • I kept cracking up at the signs that said, “Aquí jamás estuvo Hemingway,” which translates to “Ernest Hemingway was never here.” (Trust me, it’s funny.)
  • After dinner, it was Angela’s turn for a siesta, and Brian and I went for a walk through the city.
    • Stumbled upon a park and knew it had to be a wifi hot spot because literally everyone had their head down and was looking at their phones.
    • Getting wifi in a park in La Habana felt a lot like a drug deal (or at least what I’d imagine a drug deal to feel like). Basically you walk through the park and strange men approach you whispering things like “wifi? You need wifi? I have wifi”, and then you first say no thanks and figure you can live without wifi and you are all proud of yourself, but then the allure of the wifi becomes too strong and you end up going back to the dealer and caving in. But really it’s ok because you really wanted to text your parents and let them know you were fine!
  • Headed out to the Buena Vista Social Club, where we did a little dancing, even though our table was far away from the band and most of the action. La Madrina joined us, and it was a super fun night out! The music was pretty amazing indeed!
  • When we got back to La Madrina’s, we learned that the entire city of Havana (actually it ended up being the entire country) was out of water. There was a broken pipe in an aqueduct that they had been working on for a few days, and finally it caught up with the country. La Madrina was extremely worried, but hey, what can you do? Luckily, the water came back at around 8:30 the next morning, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
  • Hung out on the patio for a while and then went to bed, since we had an early morning ahead of us.

Day 3 – Monday

  • Woke up early for, you guessed it, breakfast at La Madrina’s! Did not get morning shower due to aforementioned lack of water. Survived.
  • Headed out for a day trip to Viñales, which was about three hours away (182 km, according to Google Maps…and yes, I do distances in km now).
  • 1952 Chevy, which was started each time by a combination of a key and hotwiring (????).
  • Got pulled over (again by being flagged down by some guy on the side of the road, which was stranger than last time because we were on a highway).
    • No ticket this time.
  • Stopped at a mirador (viewpoint, or scenic overlook, for those of you have driven on 295 south in NJ) to check out the sprawling countryside. Gorgeous. Almost looked like something out of a fantasy novel.
  • Local place for lunch. They basically just asked what kind of meat we wanted (we all ordered pork, even after we saw the entire pig cooking on the grill outside the restaurant), and then they brought five-million side dishes along with the meat. Definitely too much food, but really tasty.
    • The cucumber salad was delish.
    • They also served us a drink made from freshly-squeezed sugar cane.
  • Walked through some cueva (cave), which was cool but rather crowded with tourists.
  • Visited a tobacco finca (farm) and learned about the process of making cigars.
    • This finca was within a national park, so they aren’t allowed to use tractors to plow the fields. They still use oxen.
    • There are also no chemicals used, so the tobacco is pure.
    • 90% of the harvest goes to the government, and the other 10% goes to the farmers (campesinos).
    • Learned that we can apparently now bring unlimited cigars into the USA?
  • Drove past a mural painted on the side of the mountain by Diego Rivera.
    • Should’ve just let the mountain be a mountain, IMO.
  • Drove back to La Habana (didn’t get pulled over this time, although the driver did stop and add brake fluid on the side of the road…that’s not nervewracking or anything).
  • Dinner at some dive because everywhere else had lines into the street. The food wasn’t great, but the live music was!

Day 4 – Tuesday

  • You know what this first bullet is for…yet another delicious breakfast with La Madrina.
  • More meandering around La Habana.
  • Found La Bodegadita del Medio, which is where Hemingway actually did go.
    • Luckily we got there early because we were allowed to grab a seat at the bar instead of being smooshed in like all the other crazy tourists.
    • Enjoyed watching as the bartender pulled endless pre-made mojitos from beneath the bar (that’s what Hemingway ordered there).
    • Brian got a custom poem about Costa Rica and all its provinces.
    • Got out of there quickly, due to high numbers of loud tourists.
  • Stumbled upon some street art.
  • Purchased street art, chatted with artist for a while.
    • He was wrapping the art in old newspapers…and I mean OLD newspapers. Like, from the 50s. They were really cool to look at, and I’m excited that I have one here (it’s from the entertainment section in case you’re curious).
  • Walked more.
  • Ducked into a cafe for a small lunch (I had hummus and it was amazing).
  • Walked more.
  • Sat in park people watching until it was time to head on out to the airport.
  • Said our good-byes to La Madrina and were on our way!
  • Safely made it home to San Jose by 11 and went straight to bed so as to be ready for work the next day!

In case it isn’t obvious, it was an amazing getaway to a beautiful country. Quite honestly, I came home with more questions than answers about Cuba. I can’t even think to pretend that four days in Cuba can help me understand the country with any depth at all. You may have noticed that I didn’t write much about their politics or the Revolution or its economy or any of that stuff. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn about it, because of course I did. And I was fascinated to be in a place so different from most things I have known in my life. I still don’t understand the revolution and the government and the salaries and the currency and how people get certain jobs, but I will do some reading on that to learn more. What I will remember is the lively, vibrant, musical culture that exists in this gorgeous city. It was an honor to be a guest there, if even just for a few days!

Oh, and of course, special thanks to Angela and Brian for sharing such an awesome weekend with me! I could write a whole other post on the laughs we shared and memories we made together!

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